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'Boozhoo' to the Affordable Care Act: Local scholar Anton Treuer voices Ojibwe spots on health care enrollment

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BEMIDJI -- As the signup deadline for the statewide MNsure and federal Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges loomed Monday, radio listeners might have heard an interesting pitch for enrolling: one delivered almost completely in Ojibwe.

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For more than six months, a series of radio spots all over the country has been encouraging American Indians to sign up for health coverage. The ones that put the traditional Ojibwe language over the airwaves starred Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe expert and director of the American Indian Resource Center at BSU.

Treuer said Monday that although people who only speak Ojibwe are relatively rare south of the Canadian border, the ads still serve to gain the attention and trust of American Indians who might otherwise flip the radio dial to something else. American Indian enrollees aren't necessarily subject to the March 31 signup deadline and may receive special benefits under the ACA.

"I think it's pretty easy for anybody to kind of tune out, with public service announcements and things like that," Treuer said. "To me, the ad campaign is less designed for getting critical information to monolingual speakers ... it was more to generate trust and engagement with the messaging."

Jo Ann Kauffman, American Indian owner of national ad firm Kauffman and Associates, had a similar take. Her firm was hired by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to promote the ACA among the country's American Indian population. In response, Kauffman and Associates came up with a campaign that involves radio PSAs in English and five different tribal languages telling American Indians where to sign up for coverage.

"It gets people's attention," Kauffman said. "Even if they're not a fluent speaker, they're going to to know that this is a message that's been developed just for their people."

For the most part, the Ojibwe spots came from English-language scripts sent from Kauffman and Associates for Treuer and Red Lake elder Anna Gibbs to translate, Treuer said. Although words like "insurance" and "health care provider" proved somewhat difficult, Treuer and Gibbs came up with a suitable Ojibwe script which they then recorded at local radio station KBXE.

Kelly Bundy of Kauffman and Associates said monitoring just how many people sign up because of the ads is tricky, but the campaign is having an effect.

"Enrollment has increased, and enrollment numbers in Indian country (have) increased," she said.

Since American Indians don't need to follow the March 31 deadline, the nationwide campaign will run until August, Bundy said.

The implementation of "Obamacare" has been politically charged to say the least. However, Treuer sees himself and Gibbs as messengers, not advocates, he said.

"Our role is really that of speaker/translator rather than formal endorser," he said. "Neither one of us is on there saying, 'I'm representing myself, my community, my place of employment, and we think you should do x, y, or z.'"

What drew Treuer to doing the ads wasn't the political implications -- rather, it was the chance to see Ojibwe used in a practical way, he said.

"We're not necessarily proponents or attackers of the ad at all, but we're definitely proponents of the language," he said. "I was most interested in seeing our language live as an everyday language ... not just for ceremonies and academics."

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